“Ojibwe and non-Natives alike, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, are all governed by the great leveler—nature. If we befoul our water, we poison ourselves”(Mary Annette Pember, 2016, September 15)
For more information about the Protect Our Water (Stop Enbridge Line 3) Demonstration in Duluth, Minnesota on September 28, 2019, you can visit the following links:
Water has always been so important in my life. Perhaps the time of my birth on the cusp of Pisces (two fish swimming in opposite directions) and Aquarius (the water-bearer) presaged my sense of wonder and connection to water.
As Nichols (2014, p. xiii) observes,
“One of the many possible ways to describe life would be as a series of encounters with various bodies of water. Time spent in, on, under, or near water interspersed with the periods thinking about where, when, and how to reach it next.”
My life has been blessed by positive connections to water. As a child of two profoundly different cultures, my safe places were the brook and pond near my New Jersey home, and the interconnected lakes I visited in summers on the Ojibwe reservation where my mother was born in northern Wisconsin. Summers also meant trips to the Atlantic Ocean where I learned how to gather clams with my toes, and camping by Lake Welch in the Ramapo Mountains of New York State. The Allegheny River provided solace during my high school years in northwestern Pennsylvania, and Lake Michigan did likewise during my early college years in Chicago, Illinois. Now, I live near the southwestern shore of Lake Superior to be closer to my daughter and grandchildren who are drawn to the water as well.
I wasn’t conscious of the importance of water throughout my life a year ago when I decided to focus the research class I teach on the connections between access to clean water and healthy communities. I am grateful that my family and students are helping me continue to learn about the increasing importance of this issue for the future world they will inherit. It is heartening to witness so many people of all ages around the globe awakening and unifying to protect the indispensable resources that are a necessity for all life.
Wallace J. Nichols (2014). Blue mind: The surprising science that shows how being near, in, on, or under water can make you happier, healthier, more connected, and better at what you do. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
“Awesome! Ava and I will pick you up in about an hour.”
The annual sale is an event we have often attended, even when I lived far from Duluth. I remember trips with my grandson years before my granddaughter was born twelve years ago. Some years, the weather has meant a sweltering thirsty journey in mid-June as we walked along miles of the narrow roadway crowded with parked cars and new arrivals looking for empty spaces.
This year’s trip was a different story. It was cold in the morning when we arrived. Strong blustery east winds were whipping up waves along the Lake Superior shoreline, making the mid-50 F degree temperature feel more like winter. Warnings were posted, advising visitors to stay out of the water due to the danger of rip currents.
The Park Point neighborhood has a fascinating history. It is located on what was once a narrow seven-mile sandy peninsula that extended into the lake from the southwestern shore of Lake Superior. The Anishinaabe (also known as the Ojibwe, Ojibway, or Chippewa) had established a community, Onigamiinsing – the “little portage.” The first recorded European visitor arrived in Onigamiinsing in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, a French soldier and explorer (Wikipedia; Klefstad, 2012).
“By 1852, the first non-Indian resident, George Stuntz, had established three buildings for a trading post and living space” (Klefstad, 2012, para. 4).
Land for the new city was ceded by the Ojibwe to the United States in the 1854 Treaty of La Pointe. (More information about the treaty can be found at the following links: Wikipedia and MNopedia.) According to a report based on the U.S. Census, American Indians comprised 2.4% of Duluth’s population by the year 2000 (Gilly, Gangl, & Skoog, n.d.). The authors of the county report suggest that American Indians, like the majority of other people of color, were concentrated in Duluth’s poorest neighborhoods and less likely to live in neighborhoods like Park Point.
The settlers who arrived in the 1800s named their new home “Duluth” in honor of the first European visitor and began transforming the environment.
“By 1871, the long peninsula became an island when Duluth dug out the ship canal that separates the Point from Canal Park, the other part of Minnesota Point. After nearly 20 years, Park Point reunited with the mainland with the 1905 opening of Duluth’s signature structure, the Aerial Bridge, first as a suspended ferry, later as a lift-span roadway” (Klefstad, 2012. para. 7).
I did capture a couple shots of the bridge as we left Park Point on the only road that connects it now to the mainland.
We walked at least a mile or two down one side of the street and back on the other side. We passed the wetlands preserve on the bayside of the island/peninsula.
And we stopped to visit most of the yards and garages where a wide assortment of items were on display – clothing, dishes, art work, photography, toys, etc. I didn’t intend to buy anything but couldn’t resist the wool winter hat hand-crafted for Alaskan winters. I needed it yesterday morning in the cold wind!
Serendipity also led us to a photographer we visited last year when my daughter and I both bought framed pictures from him. This year, we merely stopped to look and chat and met a delightful blogger, Allyson Engelstad, who shares her photos and reflections on her beautiful blog. I encourage anyone who loves to learn about nature to visit her lovely site, penncosect24.
I couldn’t resist the gliding rocking chair for sale at a price far, far less than the battered ones I have seen in thrift stores. (My granddaughter offered to lend me the money to buy it because I left my purse in the car.) It’s sturdy and comfortable. Maybe someday I will change the upholstery on the cushions. Or maybe not. I used to sew and made most of my daughter’s clothes when she was little, but the doll I began making for my granddaughter more than twelve years ago when she was a baby still needs to be finished. (You’ll have to use your imagination to figure out what the upholstery looks like. I don’t think it’s worth a photo…)
Before we left for home, we visited the windy beach on the lakeside of the island/peninsula.
As we headed home, I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some of the interesting sights in the city.
I enjoyed the break from working on cleaning up my yard and gardens. There is plenty of work still waiting and a manuscript to finish editing that is haunting me as well. I just wanted to share something along with my best wishes to all before I immerse myself in work again.
Reading the mainstream news confirms Cohen’s message
“There is a crack, a crack in everything”
yet all I have to offer are imperfect ramblings
Perhaps that’s enough to let some light get in?
The research my students read this past semester continues to haunt me. They explored how unequal access to potable water disproportionately affects the health of groups that have been relegated to marginalized socio-economic status and forced to relocate to the least desirable lands. Most people believe that “developed” countries are not affected by the scarcity of safe water to drink. Some of the students this past semester were shocked when they discovered otherwise.
One student shared a quote from a study she reviewed, “… the value of water is [only] truly appreciated when one becomes thirsty” (Noga & Wolbring, 2013, p. 1872). I am reminded of the courage and commitment of the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the violent resistance they had to endure because too many people take clean water for granted until it’s too late.
Another student reviewed a study about a community in Texas that was profoundly affected by a disaster. Although the study took place almost a decade after the residents learned that their water had been contaminated with benzene, the community remained shattered as a result of a “technological disaster” caused by a nearby oil refinery owned by the Exxon Corporation (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 118).
Although community members noticed problems with the smell, taste, and color of their water when they first moved into the newly developed subdivision in the 1980s, they were assured by the local municipal utility district that the water was safe. The district staff undoubtedly believed that to be true. Public water suppliers were not required to test for benzene, “a known human carcinogen,” until 1990 (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 120). After benzene was included among the chemical contaminants public water suppliers had to measure, the test results for the community’s water supply were alarming – the amount of benzene was eleven times greater than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Without informing residents, the district switched the community to a “safe” alternate water source after additional tests showed the same results for benzene. Community residents were not informed about the contamination or the switch until rumors and a local investigative reporter forced the issue. Residents were finally notified five months after the discovery and shift to a new water source. Couch and Mercury (2007, p. 117) describe the response. “In the words of one resident, the community reacted ‘like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.’”
Imagine what that does to the sense of trust community members have in their public service providers and government officials. It’s something residents in Love Canal, NY and Flint, MI experienced.
Residents in each of the communities affected by “technological disasters” had to undertake their own advocacy and identify researchers and lawyers who could help them prove their case. But ending at least part of the most obvious and egregious environmental injustices and winning court cases can’t heal the ongoing health damages, psychological trauma, or splintered community relationships that result.
This brief overview does not do justice to an important research study that details the complex intricacies of the multidimensional harm suffered by residents of this particular Texas community. Hopefully, though, it highlights a simple, compelling point. Vulnerability to the most destructive consequences of both technological and natural disasters is far greater for groups that have already been subjected to centuries of ongoing systematic and structural discrimination because of socio-economic status and ancestry. It is not something governments alone can address even if they are willing to do so. The causes are deeper and more complex.
There is a pattern we see repeating for each community that goes through the increasingly common natural and technological disasters. Community leaders declare their intention to rebuild and recover what was lost. Based on the experiences of communities that have survived repeated natural disasters, recovery has sometimes been possible. Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 131) point out “that in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters, a disaster subculture develops which helps residents prepare for and respond to disasters. For example, in natural disasters, a therapeutic community often forms by which neighbor helps neighbor to respond to the catastrophe” (emphasis mine).
What Couch and Mecuri (2007, p. 131) witnessed in the community they studied, however, “was just the opposite, with everybody looking out only for themselves. Instead of the community being solidified, it was ‘like someone stepping on an anthill.’” They argue that what developed was a subculture of distress among residents that reinforced “uncertainty, distrust, alienation, and conflicting individualized responses to the problems” (Couch & Mercuri, 2007, p. 132, emphasis mine).
Couch and Mercuri (2007, p. 134) argue that “With chronic technological disasters, recovery/transformation must often take place in the midst of ongoing danger, or at the very least, amidst the perception of it.” The trauma created by benzene contamination didn’t end when the problem was addressed by the municipal utility district. Residents had already ingested contaminated water and had been deceived by people and officials whom they had trusted.
They had to live with the fact that they were already ill or with constant fear that they might become seriously ill at some point in the future. They also learned that they couldn’t depend on government officials for help. They couldn’t recover the illusion that personal health and safety were guaranteed. The only option available to them was to transform themselves and their lives in response to changing circumstances.
As I thought about the difference between recovery and transformation for communities affected by disasters, I was reminded of the times we are all living in now. With each passing day, those in power around the world are creating ever more destruction and instability. Even if the destruction ends today, we will still need to contend with the destabilizing consequences for generations yet to come. The message I take away from this article is the need to learn how to create an adaptive community where people can learn how to work together rather than only look out for their own self interests.
Overcoming the programming that has affected too many of us in the world to hunger and thirst for things that destroy rather than sustain life is not an easy task. Perhaps as Cohen suggests, things need to break first so the light can get in. Perhaps the most that those who see the dangers ahead can accomplish is to transform themselves and what they think and say and do.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem” from the 1992 album The Future.
Stephen R. Couch & Anne E. Mercuri (2007). Toxic water and the anthill effect: The development of a subculture of distress in a once contaminated community. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, 14, 117-137.
Jacqueline Noga & Gregor Wolbring (2013). Perceptions of water ownership, water management, and the responsibility of providing clean water. Water, 5(4), 1865-1889.
It has been weeks since I have had time to post and April has flown by. I have had brief respites to simply observe beauty.
I have also made it a priority to spend time with my daughter and grandchildren when possible.
Mostly, though, I have been working on the two classes I am teaching this semester.
Saturday, as I prepared for the macro practice class I co-teach with a colleague, I was lost in a stream of consciousness moment when one thought lead me down a path of memories that didn’t seem to have any logical connections other than my long life. As I put skin cream on my legs after my shower, I noticed my right knee once again. It’s still a bit puffy despite the decades that have passed since it was injured when I was taking care of Rita. Thinking of Rita always reminds me how precious and unpredictable life is.
Rita was a tiny woman when she contracted the brain cancer that was killing her slowly despite operations, radiation treatments, and medications. Medications caused her body to become bloated and stimulated her appetite. By the time I was hired as a home health aide to help care for her during the last year of her life, she had gained a lot of weight. She needed assistance with self-care and walking. She was often lost in another world of thoughts but she did love to eat. She would often joke about the meals I prepared. Cooking has never been something I liked doing, but I tried my best.
I was warned to remain emotionally distant by my employer. “She’s going to die no matter what you do, so don’t get attached.” Despite the warning, I discovered something that has stayed with me when I teach. I learned to care about her deeply and let her know I cared in many ways even though I knew our time together was limited. I knew I couldn’t do anything to cure her disease, but I could bring “soft hands and laughter” into her life no matter how long or short it was meant to be. I would sit and listen to her talk, cook things she liked, and take her on excursions when she expressed a desire to get out of the house even for a moment.
Gradually, Rita lost her ability to walk and spent much of her time in bed. Toward the end of her life, when I was helping her move from her bed to the wheelchair she had to use at that point, she had a seizure. It was heavy lifting for me at the best of times. I weighed at least 30 pounds less than Rita. As I was lifting her that day, her body went rigid as she shook with powerful spasms. It wasn’t possible for me to lift her back on the bed or help her flex into a sitting position. With my arms wrapped around her body, all I could do was lower her gently to the floor, injuring my knee in the process. With gentle hands and a calming voice, I helped Rita relax and was finally able to get her to help me lift her into the wheelchair.
She lived far longer than predicted. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to be with her until the end because I planned to move soon to another state. When I let my employer know I would be moving a month in advance, they fired me immediately and brought in another aide. The family was angry and asked me to stay and hired me themselves to fill in the hours when the agency aide was not with Rita. I agreed to help as long as I could.
When I arrived for my first shift, I heard the new aide yelling. I peeked into Rita’s bedroom and saw the aide roughly slapping a washcloth over Rita’s face. At that point, Rita was in the final stages of her disease. She required total care and was unable to speak. I walked in to help the aide and let the family know what I witnessed. Within a week, Rita was gone.
Although I grieved her death, I knew that I had done the best I could to make her last year as kind and comfortable as possible. I realized that spending time with Rita was a gift. Being present in the moment and caring about others are especially important in times of transition. It lessened my sadness about loss.
My knee remained painful but surviving childhood abuse taught me how to function despite physical pain. Later, I learned that the injury resulted in “knee effusion, or water on the knee.” Although it was bruised, swollen, and stiff, I was still able to walk. A supportive, flexible knee bandage helped reduce the pain although it took more than a year to fully heal. Decades later, it’s still a little puffy but usually works just fine.
Perhaps my Saturday morning reminiscence about Rita was triggered by a frightening experience on Friday evening. I fell asleep curled up in my rocking chair, exhausted, after teaching the second to the last research class before the end of the semester. I awoke with painful cramps in my legs and was initially unable to walk. It was a frightening reminder of how unpredictable life can be. Thankfully the pain subsided quickly. (Next time I’ll take naps elsewhere!)
Reviewing student papers has meant hours of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, first reading original sources to make sense of student papers, and then, hours on the computer grading and commenting to help students learn how to read carefully and write clearly.
Like my experience with Rita, grading has been a mixed blessing. In the process, I learned a lot about access to safe, drinkable water around the globe. Someday, I hope I have time to synthesize what I learned from the kaleidoscopic assortment of research studies my students explored. The process of reviewing many different vantage points about the crises we are facing, however, reminded me to keep things in perspective.
One third of the world’s population is without access to potable water or sanitation at the household level (Cumming, Elliott, Overbo, & Bartram, 2014). One third! And we continue fracking, spewing out plastic garbage, pouring more toxic chemicals on farmlands, and building yet more weapons. I am so grateful for the opportunity to play a role in raising student awareness about these issues. Grading has also left little time for me to write or visit blogs. That is unlikely to change in the next few weeks before the semester ends.
Next semester I will have the privilege of working with the same group of students. Throughout my years of teaching, I have remembered to be mindful of the lessons Rita taught me.
Be present in the moment and care about each student.
I only have a short time to spend with each cohort of students before they move on with their lives. All I can do is my best and hope they will learn what they need to know while we are together so they are prepared to face a challenging and uncertain future with the ability to think critically and respond with caring creativity.
Oliver Cumming, Mark Elliott, Alicia Overbo, & Jamie Bartram (2014). Does global progress on sanitation really lag behind water? An analysis of global progress on community- and household-level access to safe water and sanitation. Plos One.
I woke up this morning. Late, of course, when defined by daylight savings time. Sunlight was streaming through the eastern window. But when I awoke, a gentle but stunning realization dawned as a simple question ran through my mind.
“What happens if you put good people in an evil place?”
Although I made many mistakes in my journey, strength came from the ancestors who sometimes appeared to me and the wise beings who visited me in dreams. They taught me that compassion comes from forgiving one’s self as a necessary foundation for forgoing the need to demonize others for the choices they make.
“Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
I look at the state of the world today and know that I am just one unimportant person among billions. There is little I can do to affect change in the systems that harm others. That’s a choice only each individual must make for themselves. It’s a choice that one makes each moment.
I am inspired by the choices Diane Lefer recently shared on her blog, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, about those who are working to address the egregious harm being done along the border with Mexico in the name of “Making America Great Again.” Diane’s work reminds me of something written more than a century ago by Jane Addams when she and the women of Hull-House in Chicago lived among newly arrived immigrants in the poorest of city neighborhoods.
“. . . the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams, 1961, p. 76).
May we all continue to make wise, compassionate choices to use whatever gifts we have to build a kinder world.
Jane Addams (1961). Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classics.
I remember other storms approaching – the wind silent but the air filled with the electricity of threat and possibility. I survived. But have I worn the grooves of hope and love deeply enough into my spirit to weather the storms that I know are coming? As I sat on my doorstep watching the first of the snowflakes begin to fall in the darkened landscape, I wondered what the winter of these times will bring. I can feel the beat of my heart quicken with a mixture of fear and exhilaration.
My thoughts are transported back to an earlier time, the first warning of storms to come. I was standing in the Connecticut cottage where I lived with my infant daughter looking out of the picture window toward the trees and down at the river that flowed past the front of the cabin. Then, as today, the air was filled with the electricity of an approaching storm. Yet in the past, I awoke from a dream remembering some of the images and insights of a guide who sometimes speaks to me through dreams. “A storm is coming,” the guide said.
“Times ahead will be hard. The earth has shifted on its axis and the polarities of the earth’s gravitational fields are changing. People will not know they are being affected by these shifts, but polarities will be amplified. Those on a path of light will glow brighter while those on a path of darkness will grow stronger in their quest for control and destruction. You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”
How could I leave an infant to face the coming storms without a mother who loved her? I certainly wasn’t a perfect mother, but I loved my daughter enough to choose to seek the light again and again. I would fail again and again, but decades later, I know I did the best I could. I’m not a perfect grandmother either, and I’m unsure what I can do to help my daughter and grandchildren prepare for the coming storms, but I trust that whatever comes, love for others and for this wondrous and beautiful world and universe are what will matter most in the years ahead.
Now, I feel compelled to face the reality that there are difficult times ahead. During the weeks it took me to reconfigure the research course I have been teaching from a one- semester course to a two-semester course, I remembered my mother’s example and the message in the dream I had when my daughter was a baby. I kept working despite deepening alarm about the state of the world.
As I reviewed videos to rebuild the online content for the 50/50 face-to-face and online hybrid course, I found myself wishing I could set off as I did decades ago to find a safe space for my family. To find a community of thoughtful people working together to build an inclusive community like the ones I romantically imagine my Ojibwe ancestors created.
Reviewing videos that I used to think of as anomalous examples of the cruelty some humans express, The Deadly Deception and The Stanford Prison Experiment, only brought to mind the brutality of our current treatment of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.
Several of the other videos I reviewed added to my realization that disregard for life has been and is still inextricably built into the predominant values and institutions in many nations. If you have the courage and stomach, here are links to a couple reminders that presage even harder times to come for people and the earth.
Cancer Alley, Louisiana – Victims of Environmental Racism:
But the cruelty and disregard for life are nothing new and they’re not confined to one nation, religion, or culture. Still, looking at the super moon a couple days ago helped me find the strength to continue this sometimes heavy and lonely journey.
In the Depths of Winter (January 21, 2019)
In the depths of winter on a cold dark night
the super blood wolf moon is a welcome sight
a reminder of blessings beneath her comforting light
She reflects the sun for all whether they see her or not
inspiring me to repeat a Reiki prayer
“Just for today –
“I will refrain from anger “I will not worry “I will be grateful “I will do my work diligently “I will be kind to myself and others”
realizing the best I can do is to try to be conscious
and disciplined enough to make these choices
moment to moment…
Speaking of choices, I do find reasons for lighthearted laughter as I join Richard Simmons and the Silver Foxes every day. I hope some of you will join me and remember to find reasons and time to laugh and to play even in the darkest of moments.
November has flown by so fast. I apologize for being woefully behind in responding to comments and visiting your blogs. Grading student papers is always a challenge for me because I lose my ability to speak in my own voice so I can focus on helping others find theirs. Yet there is an end in sight. The end of the semester is near and I will have a brief reprieve from teaching during late December and January.
When I took momentary breaks from grading this month, though, ideas for how to edit the beginning of the manuscript I began in 2015 kept flowing. It was hard to put them aside but I had to in order to meet my responsibilities for the students in my class.
Thanksgiving break gave a chance to “unplug” from those responsibilities for a week and I did manage to rewrite the preface and first chapter yet again. In the process, I realized that the reason for continuing to work on the manuscript has shifted. This time around, what struck me were all the things I don’t know about writing and how much more there is to know about things I thought I already knew and understood. Continuing to edit and revise will give me a chance to keep learning even if I don’t finish or publish a final product. That’s enough to keep me moving forward.
Here is an excerpt from the new draft of chapter one.
Chapter One – Introduction
Greeting the cold, bright November morning, I once again wonder how to begin a book about the welfare of Ojibwe children. Despite the many different cultures and living beings that share this earth, the welfare of all children is the foundation for our collective survival.
As I sit lost in thought, a little chickadee lands close to my feet and peers up at me before taking flight. He reminds me to be present in the moment. To take time to remember where this journey began.
An essay I wrote a while ago comes to mind.
My first memory as a child is so clear in my mind even though experts in brain development say it is not possible. It was my first Christmas. A February baby born on the cusp of Pisces and Aquarius, I lay in my crib as the winter sun streamed through the window. My mother and father stood on opposite sides of my crib, arguing. The personal pain and insecurities that led to their argument were so clear to me. But more compelling were the strengths and beauty I saw in both of them. I struggled helplessly in a body that was unable to give voice to what I saw. All I could do was cry.
I don’t remember choosing to be born to parents from different cultures, both deeply wounded by their own lifetime experiences. And even though some religions believe in reincarnation, I am unwilling to speculate about things I cannot know for certain. I only know that for my mother, I was both “the one bright star” in her life, and a constant reminder of the shame she carried because of her Ojibwe heritage.
I do, however, remember the day I chose which culture would define my sense of identity. But before I tell the story, I need to back up a little to earlier times. My father grew up with abuse in a dour, cruel Anglo-American family. As a man of smaller stature who joined the marines, he was often the victim of cruel teasing and bullying. He learned to be the first to strike out with biting words, fists, and whatever weapons were close at hand. My mother was an easy target.
Programmed in Catholic Indian boarding school to believe that she was inferior to whites because of her Ojibwe heritage, she accepted emotional and physical abuse without question. No one would help her. My father’s family was certainly not concerned, and my mother’s relatives were too geographically distant. Priests and counselors told her it was her duty to stand by her husband. So she did, until one day when I was four and my brother was one. She left, taking little except me and my brother. I remember the train rides as we sped across the country on a series of new adventures, living in apartments and trailers in a number of states – Texas, New Mexico and finally, Wisconsin. Each time, when my father would find us, my mother would move again. The final stop was at my grandmother’s home on the reservation where my mother was born and raised.
I remember that day clearly, although I was only four-and-a-half years old. We were standing in front of my grandmother’s house when my father arrived. He told my mother that he was taking my brother and me back to New Jersey. If she ever wanted to see us again, she would have to come too. My mother stood there sobbing with my brother wrapped in her arms as my father stormed off to the car. I ran to catch him. He turned and looked down at me as I started to yell. I kicked him in the legs as hard as I could and screamed, “I hate you for hurting my mother. I won’t let you hurt her anymore!” That day, I chose to be Ojibwe, as I consciously chose to become the family scapegoat. I did protect my mother, although she rarely did the same for me. I now understand why she couldn’t. I also protected my brother to the best of my ability until I left for college. I learned how to withstand insults and beatings with strategies that have left me with unique strengths, or serious weaknesses, depending on the context.
But my ancestry is both Ojibwe and that of the descendants of immigrants from Europe. The fact that I chose which cultural identity to call my own has little to do with how others see me. Because I grew up between two cultures, I never felt that I really belonged to either. There were no family members or classmates or teachers to serve as guides to teach me how to walk in two worlds. But I quickly learned that the liminal space between cultures is often a lonely place to live.
Rupert Ross (1992), an Assistant Crown Attorney in Canada observed, “When you try to be a bridge between two cultures, you should expect to get walked over by some people from both sides.” (1) This is true from my experience, but not the most difficult challenge to overcome. Because I was in-between, I had to learn to listen and observe others intensely to try to understand who they were and what was important to them. Not surprisingly, this often meant I learned to bridge many differences. Because I learned how to stand up against abuse, I was most interested in working with people whose experiences were in some ways similar to mine. By watching and listening to people from many different cultures, I became increasingly aware of the larger structural issues that underlay their shared oppression. But to be an observer who also sees a broader context is a space of distance that prevents one from really ever just “being” with people.
For years, I tried to avoid living in this liminal space. I started college, switching settings several times before leaving. I tried chemistry and biology, then French and philosophy, before dropping out with more than enough credits to graduate if I had ever decided on a major. Instead, I traveled and worked at minimal skill jobs – a nurse’s aide, a telephone operator, a doughnut finisher, a seamstress, a receptionist who couldn’t type but who was skilled with people, and a waitress in elegant restaurants and greasy spoons. I did find a reason to choose living in the liminal space between cultures again when I took a job as a kitchen aide, and then as an attendant, in a horrific institution for people who had cognitive and physical disabilities, a “State School for the Mentally Retarded.”
. . .
Decades later, I am grateful for the decision I made to assume the responsibility for doing what I could to not only address injustice, but more importantly, to experiment with ways to live from a stance of liberatory praxis, combining theory and action. My graduate studies focused on understanding organizational theories and social welfare policies from dominant cultural perspectives and subjecting them to a critical analysis from an Ojibwe worldview. During my career as a policy developer, administrator, program developer, educator, and researcher, I experimented with ways to consciously work toward liberating people rather than merely imposing approaches that encouraged conformity and powerlessness.
In this last phase of my life, I feel a sense of urgency to use my remaining time as constructively as I can, even though it means remaining in the liminal space between cultures. I have begun writing a book about the child welfare system from a critical ethnographic Ojibwe perspective, an approach that explores not only what is, but also what was and what could be. As I revisit the stories I gathered from Ojibwe people of all ages about their childhood experiences, I often find myself wishing I could simply blame colonial oppressors for all of the atrocities indigenous people have suffered throughout the ages. But as Bourdieu, Fanon, Foucault, Freire, Gramsci, and so many others point out, it is not really that simple. (2)
Hegemony remains in place because of our everyday decisions to take the easy road, to keep too busy to care about the world around us, to remain silent about the injustices we see, to sometimes use oppressive systems to gain our own piece of the pie, or to invoke the power of the police state to resolve disputes instead of dealing with them constructively ourselves. To blame all of the world’s ills on the ruling elite robs us of our free will, our personhood. It would be like blaming my parents for all of the mistakes I have made, sometimes because I was clueless, sometimes because I was lazy, and sometimes because I just wanted to self-destruct….
Blaming others for the past is a waste of time. We cannot change it. However, it is crucial to understand the history of colonial oppression and the consequences that have continued to affect subsequent generations of subjugated and marginalized peoples. Unfortunately, history textbooks and ethnographic accounts rarely convey experiences through the lenses and voices of populations without power.
Dominant narratives convey messages that help preserve the power of those who benefited from conquest, land theft, enslavement, and the imposition of structures of social and economic inequality. We need to understand the past through other lenses in order to address the legacy of harm and avoid repeating the brutal mistakes of the past. That is not always an easy task on either a national or personal level.
A frantic phone call from my father in the autumn of 1981 presaged my realization that it was too late to hear my mother’s stories about the old days and old ways. “Please come quickly,” he said, his voice filled with panic and tears. “Your mother almost died. She’s home from the hospital now but she is having trouble walking and seems confused.” I told my father I would be there by noon the next day. It was too late at night for me set off on the five-hour trip north to the Ojibwe reservation where my mother and father lived – the reservation where my mother had been born sixty years before.
Rupert Ross (1992). Dancing with a ghost: Exploring Indian reality. Markham, ON: Canada: Octopus Publishing Group, (p. xx).
Pierre Bourdieu (1994), Structures, habitus, power: Basis for a theory of symbolic power. In N. B. Dirks, E. Eley, & S. B. Ortner (Eds). Culture/power/history: A reader in contemporary social theory (pp. 155-199). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.; Frantz Fanon (2004). The wretched of the earth. (Richard Philcox, Trans.). New York, NY: Grove Press.; Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline & Punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.; Paulo Freire (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.; Antonio Gramsci (1999). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gransci (Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith, Eds. & Trans.) New York, NY: International Press.
This morning, I revisited one of my first posts and decided to share it. Perhaps this will be one of my last entries. I have joined NaNoWrMo for the month of November to provide structure and motivation for working on final edits for the manuscript I began in 2015. It’s time for me to take the risk that I’ll once again be sharing my authentic voice in a darkened auditorium to the censure of critics. The message the book contains about the importance of preserving even limited tribal sovereignty in order to preserve cultures that value life is too pressing to ignore for me in these times.
As a child, I would often run through the woods behind my house so I could sit next to a little stream and sing for hours with the music of the water as it washed over and around the rocks in its path. As a little girl, I dreamed of being a singer when I grew up. I loved to sing. My parents were too poor to buy the piano I desperately wanted to learn to play so I could sing with an instrument, but they did finally buy me an instrument they could afford. It was one that I found awkward and embarrassing — an accordion. For a tiny stick of a girl, it was a funny sight for me to imagine — this huge appendage strapped to my chest as I struggled to move the bellows and press keys at the same time. I was never good at playing it, although a kind musician at the summer camp where my family sometimes spent vacations asked me to perform with him when I was about ten. I was too excited to experience the fear that would later overwhelm me at the very thought of standing on a stage. That would come later.
By high school I sang in choirs and loved blending my high soprano voice in harmony with so many different voices. I tried to start a small singing group with three others: an alto, tenor and bass. But our first performance was embarrassing. Some of my partners forgot the words as we sang and others forgot the chords. We lived through the teasing and embarrassment, but the group didn’t last. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to sing in public again, but I still loved to sing. It was my way of connecting with a deeper part of myself to let feelings and creativity flow. When I got to college, I met a few other women who loved to sing. They taught me a little about playing the guitar and introduced me to a little coffee house in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood. On our first visit, it happened to be “open mic night,” my friends dared me to sing. With my knees like rubber, barely able to breathe or swallow, I walked up on the stage and somehow managed to sing something despite trembling fingers that missed many chords. To my astonishment, the owner offered me a job singing on weekend evenings.
Stage fright became a constant reality. I didn’t know many songs, I wasn’t very good on the guitar, my soft voice needed a mic to be heard and didn’t have a wide range for lower notes, and I could never predict if the sounds that emerged would be cloudy or clear. I needed to learn and practice new things. But where could I go in the windy and wintry city to practice? Then I discovered the college auditorium, often deserted on late evenings during the week. I would walk up on the stage in the dark room and sing for hours, safe in the knowledge I was free to experiment and make as many mistakes as needed.
The first weekend when I walked to the coffee house for my new “job,” it was daunting to see my name in lights above the door. Despite nausea, weak knees and trembling hands, I made it through that weekend and several more without any truly embarrassing moments. Practice didn’t ease the terror, but it helped me reach ever deeper to sing from my heart and my spirit. But my career abruptly ended one evening as I was finishing my practice session in the auditorium. As I was kneeling to put my guitar into its case, a voice from the back of the darkened auditorium caused me to pause. “YOU DON’T SING FOR PEOPLE!” As I peered out at the row of seats, I could barely make out the darker shadow of someone seated in the very back of the room. The dark shadow rose and walked into the slightly lighter aisle. I could see the middle-aged white priest in his vestments. He repeated his words, “You don’t sing for people.” Then he turned and walked out without another word. It was the last time I ever sang on a stage. I diplomatically resigned from my weekend job, packed my guitar away, and didn’t open the case again for many years.
At the time, I wasn’t able to understand my reasons for allowing these words to silence my voice. But it did make me realize one of the reasons for my stage fright. I really didn’t care if people thought I sang well. It was more a fear of revealing my heart before strangers in such an open and unprotected way. What if they found me lacking depth or substance as a human being? What if they found my words silly and trite, too angry, too melancholy, or incomprehensible? It was not the priest’s unkind words that silenced my voice. It was his uninvited presence and his harsh, unasked-for criticism. The words uncovered my greatest fears. As someone between cultures, could I ever learn to reach across divides to understand others and be understood? This priest was a stranger. How did he know how to craft strategic word-weapons to wound a stranger so deeply? And why would anyone ever do so?
I have never found the answers to those questions, but I did make the decision that night not to share the songs in my heart with strangers again with such naïve vulnerability. I don’t regret that decision. The priest’s unkind words didn’t silence the songs in my heart. The songs patiently bided their time, looking for other ways to emerge.
Years later, I remember those words every time I teach a class or speak in public, and every time I post a new essay on a blog or send out a manuscript for editing and peer review. I ask myself “Is this true? Does it come from my heart or my ego?” As a singer, I both did and did not sing for people. I sang because there was a song in my heart that needed to be given voice, and I hoped for people and hearts that would listen and sing back their songs. It’s the same with writing. I write because there is a story that won’t let me rest until it is spoken. Once written, it only comes to life if others read it and join me in dialogue. Dialogue is like the voices of a choir adding harmony and counterpoint, depth and breadth, dissonance and resolution, to the stories that unite us in our shared humanity. Yet even if dialogue doesn’t come immediately, I know that I have contributed what I can to touch the hearts of others.
Feeling chilly and achy todayas little viruses have their waymaking my body their temporary homeMy muse visits easing distress with a silly poemand with memories of times long agoabout how differing perspectivesprofoundly influence what we think we know
Perhaps many of you are tired of my stories about teaching research, but increasingly my muse insists I do so anyway. She tells me to write about my own life and experiences, to speak from my own heart regardless of what others find amusing or meaningful.
It often happens that teaching brings new insights that I didn’t really think about before I needed to explain something to students. It happened again during this semester when I was pondering how to explain the importance of perspective. There is a quote that I think about every time I take a photo.
“Doing research is, in many ways, like taking a descriptive and explanatory snapshot of empirical reality. For each particular photograph, the investigator must decide what kind of camera to use, what scene on which to focus, through which filter, and with what intent.” (Crabtree & Miller, 1999, p. 3)
I remembered a study I did when I was completing my last degree. We had to analyze the effectiveness of a social welfare policy using empirical data. Big words, perhaps, but that’s academia, making obvious and simple concepts somewhat obscure. The meaning of empirical asserts that what we can see and measure with our own eyes is somehow more real than things we imagine or feel.
Empirical means – 1: originating in or based on observation or experience, 2: relying on experience or observation alone often without due regard for system and theory, or 3: capable of being verified (proven accurate) or disproved by observation or experiment. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)
Take elder abuse. At the time I was enrolled in this class (late 1980s), elder abuse was a topic that was gaining national attention in the United States. States across the nation had enacted reporting laws similar to child abuse reporting laws passed during 1960s. Both statutes required key professionals to report suspicious injuries to state authorities for further investigation. And similar to child abuse, the most commonly substantiated category for elders was “neglect.”
For children, this meant neglectful parents from the perspective of investigators. For elders it meant “self-neglect,” defined as doing things that were considered foolish, unhealthy, or life-threatening.
When the professor asked members in the class to describe their topic, I was told that my topic was foolish.
“It’s obvious why elders are abused,” he definitively asserted. “They’re a drain on families and society’s resources.”
“Research on elders suggests otherwise,” I replied, before listing a number of studies that identified strengths on many levels. As the professor with a national reputation, he was not inclined to yield to a mere student’s views. He proceeded to tell me how stupid I was in front of the class. Several times, I replied calmly with yet more research that supported my perspective. Finally I had to interrupt this repeating cycle by smiling and gently stating, “I think we need to agree to disagree about this topic, Professor.”
In a prior job, I often had to confront ageism among social service practitioners. I remember standing before large audiences of service providers a number of times, asking them to introduce themselves to everyone by name, title, and chronological age, At least one third of each group, primarily middle-aged Euro-American women, refused to state their age in visibly angry ways. It underscored the point I wanted to make about the power of social stereotypes about aging and elders. I wondered if my graying-haired professor held the same fears and denials of aging.
Of course, I couldn’t resist following up the next class by giving him a gift, a little badge with a message printed on it – “Aging, all the best people are doing it!” Needless to say, he wasn’t amused and he did make me work incredibly hard to pass his course.
But the topic wasn’t through teaching me about perspectives. I gained access to the state’s elder abuse reporting system data set through another professor with a national reputation. “I want you to do a simple analysis,” he said, “to show that the system does a good job serving populations of color because they are more likely to be reported.” This time, I took the path of diplomacy and remained silent. I thought about the disproportional representation of people of color in the prison system and knew it was not something I would mindlessly support to please someone in power who probably shouldn’t be publishing research findings.
I met with a former research professor and asked for help to design a different study. Unlike the other professors, he asked me what I wanted to know. “I want to know if the legislation improves the lives of elders,” was my honesty response. “Well, let’s figure out how you can do that with this data set, then,” he replied.
It wasn’t an easy task. The study he helped me design explored how well the elder abuse legislation in a particular State met two competing goals, protecting elders from harm or allowing them to exercise their right to self- determination. The paper that resulted was titled “Elder abuse legislation: Protecting vulnerable citizens at the expense of personal freedom and self respect?”
The findings of the study were complex and inconclusive, but ultimately they raised ethical concerns. Statutes that require professionals to report abuse should be accompanied by sufficient funding to support appropriate interventions that help survivors and perpetrators heal and preserve or regain a sense of worth and dignity.
I am grateful for the lessons and memories of years past, and perhaps to the little viruses, too. Sometimes it takes feeling a bit under the weather to force the choice between writing rather than grading papers with a somewhat foggy mind.
Illness certainly gives one a different perspective. Yet the central point remains. Perspective matters. One can use neutral tools like research to perpetuate stereotypes and power-over approaches or as a way to explore more liberatory possibilities. Sadly, it has often been used by those in power to support the legitimacy and supremacy of their particular agendas and lenses.
Benjamin F. Crabtree and William L Miller, eds., Doing Qualitative Research, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1999), 3.
A welcoming space for resistance to the forces of oppression and hegemony.